In staying with our look at the upcoming NFL season, today I preview the AFC West, highlighted by some very solid teams that make this division look like a dogfight:
Denver – Prediction for 2006 11-5: The Broncos came basically out of nowhere last season to win 13 games, and getting a chance to host the AFC title game before laying an egg and falling behind 24-3 before eventually losing to the champion Steelers. Mike Shanahan is one of the best coaches in football, and even with a revolving door at running back, his team always runs the ball well. Jake Plummer (3366 yards, 18 TD’s in 2005) really came into his own last year, and the teams risk of playing a wealth of former Cleveland Browns linemen on the D-line paid off. This season the Broncos will once again be the class of the division, with a huge advantage playing at home, the team should win 7-8 games at Invesco. On the road the team has marquee games at playoff foes from 2005 – New England and Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, with three of their first four games against St.Louis, KC, new England and Baltimore, the Broncos will get off to a fast start and never look back.
Kansas City – Prediction for 2006 9-7: This is a really tough team to figure out. I had them pegged to win the division until the start of camp and then the preseason, where my opinion about what this team will be, changed. Herman Edwards comes in as coach, and while he had some success in New York, his coaching style will take some time to get use to. Larry Johnson will be the workhorse on offense, and Trent Green will be counted on to make plays in the passing game. Edwards has reportedly pushed his team very hard in camp, and one has to wonder what effect that will have come December. This team was in position for a playoff run in 2005, when they lost back to back December games at Dallas and the Giants that knocked them out of the race. Edwards still needs to shore up a defense that allowed 98 yards a game on the ground, and that may be a year away from happening.
San Diego – Prediction for 2006 8-8: The Chargers went from 4-12 in 2003, to 12-4 in 2004, to 9-7 last season, meaning that where they go this season is anyones guess. I’ll guess 8-8, not a bad year, just not a real good year either. A new regime is in town with Philip Rivers at quarterback, and he is bound to have some growing pains in his first full year behind center. LaDainian Tomlinson is still one of the top three backs in the game, and the offense will need every bit of his 1462 yards that he had a year ago. Antonio Gates will also help Rivers when he gets in a jam, and the offensive line is pretty solid. On defense, the team allowed over 220 yards per game a year ago through the air, a number that will have to be improved on if the team wants to move forward in 2006. A fast start with games at Oakland, vs Tennessee and at Baltimore will help Rivers gain some confidence and move the Chargers in the right direction would help a great deal. If not, it will be a roller coaster of a season for Marty and the Thunderbolts.
Oakland – Prediction for 2006 6-10: Sorry Raider Nation, this is going to be another long year for Al Davis and fans in the Black Hole. The Raiders went out and nabbed Art Shell back to be their head coach, snagged Aaron Brooks as a possible starter at QB, and have gone 4-0 in the preseason. So what’s the problem? Well, for one, this team has been unable to regain the offensive firepower it showed back in 2002 when it scored a NFL high 450 points and went 11-5 and made it to the Super Bowl. They also still have a severe lack of discipline, as each year, no matter the players or coach, they lead the league in penalties. From going 33-15 in 2000 through 2002, the Raiders have fallen on hard times, going 13-35 since then. This year will be about trying to build for the future for Shell and the black and silver, and with it will come another tough year for the faithful in Oakland.